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May 6, 2017

Do suspended sentences work better than community sentences?

The suspended sentence has a bad name. It is a sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of offenders – if someone breaches a suspended sentence (SSO), they should get sent straight to jail. The SSO has grown in popularity as the community sentence has declined.  Many worry that it is displacing the community sentence, with judges preferring a tougher sounding sentence.

Fewer people should to go to prison on short sentences, but I’m not convinced suspended sentences are to blame for the continued popularity of the short prison sentence.  A new report suggests neither suspended sentences nor community sentences are working that well, but that SSOs are actually more successful in reducing reoffending (31% vs 35%) than community sentences. This is counter-intuitive given that SSOs should be meted out for more serious crimes committed by more prolific offenders.

In fact, the differences between community sentences and SSOs are small – in both cases breach of the sentence conditions may lead to imprisonment, but often doesn’t, and the requirements attached to the orders are very similar. The difference in the success of the orders may be due to the difference in level of threat (of imprisonment) or, perhaps, to the fact that SSOs often have fewer conditions attached than community sentences, because the threat of imprisonment is seen as a punishment in itself.  Also maybe those on SSOs are more likely to be supervised by experienced National Probation Service staff.

There is no research on why SSOs seem to be more successful, but my guess lies in the nature of the supervision and the requirements.  There is no hard evidence that the threat of prison is a deterrent. But there is good evidence that supervision by probation staff is the most important requirement (of those available) for successful rehabilitation, and that other programmes – curfews etc – don’t work without supervision. There is also plenty of evidence that piling a sentence with lots of requirements is counterproductive.  So the fact that SSOs are less onorous, may be why they are more successful.

There is no evidence that sentences with tough conditions work better, or that current sentences are not tough enough.  Punishments such an unpaid work (important though it may be in enabling offenders to make amends), have no impact on reducing offending.  So I’m not convinced by the recommendation in the report that SSOs should be made more onorous, or that breach should be punished with short spells in prison.

But I totally agree on the need to train magistrates better in the use and abuse of community and short prison sentences.  The report reveals that magistrates have little faith in community sentences – two thirds of those surveyed were not convinced that their local CRC could provide adequate support for offenders, and nearly half said they did not have enough information about requirements available. Magistrates and judges need far more training, not just in the nuts and bolts of community sentences, but in what works in reducing crime. They need a crash course in criminology to understand why people commit crime, that the solutions to crime do not lie in any particular programme or “activity”, and that being tough on offenders not only doesn’t work, but may be counter-productive.  The more community sentences are criticised as too soft, the more judges will use the ultimate punishment – prison.  And a short prison sentence has unfortunately been made more attractive to sentencers by the recent addition of post sentence supervision.

Community sentences and SSOs are more effective than short prison sentences, as this report points out, but in the end a life of crime will only be turned round by a strong relationship with someone who can help (maybe a probation officer), by family ties, housing, skills and work.  Until these are at the heart of community sentences and SSOs, such sentences will never be very effective.